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Rotten Reviews

by Bill Henderson

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1154182,500 (3.63)6

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I first picked up this little book and thought I would glance through it. I flipped to a few random pages and read a few one-sentence reviews - mostly from 100 years ago. I decided this was rather boring and I would leave the book where I found it.

I'm here to tell you, don't just pick this book up and flip to a random page. You won't get very much out of it that way. Start from the beginning.

I wanted to take a book with me to read while I was waiting ond day. I picked this one because it is small enough to fit in a pocket. I read the intro and that's all it took. I was hooked. The intro mentions the history of book reviews, how being a reviewer is a thankless profession, and how negative reviews affected some of the most well-known authors.

There are no modern books reviewed here, most are classics. Some I had never heard of. Most I have never read. But I at least know enough about them to be able to find humor (or horror) in the words lobbed at the authors of these works. My favorite reviews were ones written by other authors or famous persons. John Quincy Adams believed Lord Byron's "verses would soon rank with forgotten things." Lord Byron calls Chaucer "obscene and contemptible." Edgar Allan Poe calls the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson "twaddle." Charlotte Bronte throws shade at Jane Austen, there is no shortage of writers that Virginia Woolf dislikes, and it seems everyone hated Shakespeare.

Some of the reviews are laughable in hindsight. It can't feel good as a reviewer to predict that a work will fade into obscurity, but decades later it is being taught to students all over the world. Other reviews you might agree with. I mean, just because something is a classic doesn't necessarily mean that it's enjoyable to read.

But besides the reviews by other authors, the ones that most fascinated me were the reviews of female writers. Almost all reek of misogyny. No wonder so many women wrote under pseudonyms. How many female voices have we missed over the years because they weren't valued the way that male writers were?

Take for instance, what Emerson has to say about Austen: "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me.....imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer.... is marriageableness....Suicide is more respectable." Obviously, Emerson missed the entire point of Jane Austen's novels and shows a distinct lack of understanding of what life was like for women of the time. He's so disgusted that marriage is top in mind of their worries -- that even suicide is a more worthwhile pursuit. Oh, if only women had the luxury to think about something else.

Hemingway's paragraph is so full of insults toward Gertrude Stein, but it's written with so much misogyny that I wonder if he actually thought he was being kind. "It's a shame you never knew her before she went to pot. You know a funny thing, she never could write dialogue. It was terrible. She learned how to do it from my stuff.... she was afraid people would notice it, ....so she had to attack me. It's a funny racket, really. But I swear she was damned nice before she got ambitious." Geez. Insulting her talent, but also claiming credit for her talent, then drawing attention to her seeming dislike of him, laughing it off as if she's a silly, petulant child, then throwing in a back-handed compliment to boot. All while making sure you know that women are much more pleasant to be around if they have no ambitions and wouldn't dare take on the same field as you. Ughhhhhhhhhhh.

I don't know where the author found all of these reviews. There's even one from 411 B.C.! But it's enlightening and is like reading an old gossip column or someone's diary. I love everything about this book ( )
  originalslicey | Nov 18, 2019 |
Collection of 175 scathing reviews of books we now approach with more respect if not awe. Authors from the pantheon have been subjected to nasty, just nasty and mean, attacks.
  keylawk | Aug 28, 2013 |
Humour Wit
  Budzul | Jun 1, 2008 |
I guess I thought reading scathing reviews would be humorous: I didn't find them so. Of course, it is interesting to think that Swift's Gulliver's Travels was not appreciated, or to feel vindicated that the bane of my 10th grade English class, "The Old Man in the Sea" was panned, but all in all I'm sorry I also purchased the sequel. Stay tuned.
  kaulsu | Sep 12, 2007 |
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